EARLIER this month we ran a compelling piece about the American linguist Daniel Everett, a missionary who travelled to the Amazon to take Christianity to the remote Pirahãs tribe, but wound up an atheist.
Everett’s amazing story, told in Don’t Sleep There are Snakes, was broadcast this week by BBC Radio 4, which chose it as its Book of the Week. In the last episode, aired on Friday, Everett movingly describes how he came to lose his faith.
You can hear and download the relevant section of the broadcast here.
The Pirahãs have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comforts of heaven or the fear of hell, and of sailing towards the great abyss with a smile.
And they have shown me that for years I held many of my beliefs without warrant. I have learned these things from the Pirahãs, and I will be grateful to them for as long as I live.
Hopefully, these words will lay to rest the sour suggestion by a number of Christians that Everett was never a believer to begin with; that he was, in fact, an “atheist in Christian clothing”.
Our post attracted the highest number of “hits” of any previous report on the Freethinker website, and led to a heated debate on Reddit, where the story was taken up.
Amidst all the arguing, one Reddit contributor threw a dollop of humour into the debate by posting the following extract from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld 27 – the Last Hero.
On the veldt of Howondaland live the N’tuitif people, the only tribe in the world to have no imagination whatsoever. For example, their story about the thunder runs something like this: ‘Thunder is a loud noise in the sky, resulting from the disturbance of the air masses by the passage of lightning.’And their legend â€˜How the Giraffe Got His Long Neck’ runs: ‘In the old days the ancestors of Old Man Giraffe had slightly longer necks than other grassland creatures, and the access to the high leaves was so advantageous that it was mostly long-necked giraffes that survived, passing on the long neck in their blood just as a man might inherit his grandfather’s spear. Some say, however, that it is all a lot more complicated and this explanation only applies to the shorter neck of the okapi. And so it is’.
The N’tuitif are a peaceful people, and have been hunted almost to extinction by neighbouring tribes, who have lots of imagination, and therefore plenty of gods, superstitions and ideas about how much better life would be if they had a bigger hunting ground.
Of the events on the moon that day, the N’tuitif said: ‘The moon was brightly lit and from it rose another light which then split into three lights and faded. We do not know why this happened. It was just a thing.’They were then wiped out by a nearby tribe who knew that the lights had been a signal from the god Ukli to expand the hunting ground a bit more. However, they were soon defeated entirely by a tribe who knew that the lights were their ancestors, who lived in the moon, and who were urging them to kill all non-believers in the goddess Glipzo. Three years later they in turn were killed by a rock falling from the sky as a result of a star exploding a billion years ago.
Let’s face it: few people can match Pratchett’s use of cynicism and humour to punch bloody great holes in religious beliefs.